Army's heavy guns target national park

Range row: Military fire new salvo in fight over unspoilt area
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The Independent Online
The Army opened a powerful new offensive yesterday in its campaign to bring some of its noisiest weapon systems to an English national park.

The military wants to start training with heavy tracked artillery vehicles at its Otterburn training area, which occupies a fifth of the 400 square miles of Northumberland National Park.

It has been negotiating for two years with the local council committee which controls planning over its controversial pounds 23m training development which involves a few new buildings, a concrete apron at Otterburn camp and the widening of more than 20 miles of roads.

When councillors held their quarterly meeting yesterday the Army presented proposals to ease the environmental damage threatened by the plan.

By law, national parks are intended to preserve the natural beauty of Britain's wildest landscapes while promoting public enjoyment. The Government says there should never be any large development within them ''save in exceptional circumstances''. These are just such circumstances, the Army says.

Hundreds of artillery pieces and tanks have returned from Germany following the collapse of Communism. Salisbury Plain, its most important training area, is in danger of over-use and must be kept free for tank exercises.

Otterburn is the best training area for two powerful self- propelled weapons, the AS90 155mm gun and the 25-ton multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), says the Army. Besides, it has already been firing large guns there for decades.

This is the only UK training area where the MLRS can safely launch its salvo of 12 supersonic rockets. Even the practice rocket requires a safety distance two miles wide stretching for 11 miles. Otterburn is covered in peat which would bog down heavy vehicles, hence the need for nearly 30 miles of roads.

Yesterday Lt-Col James Carter, in charge of pushing through the development, presented changes to the plan to the park committee including cutting back on gun firing positions, opening up four miles of new footpath, demolishing 40 redundant buildings and halting artillery fire in August, the peak holiday month.

It will take several months before the committee makes a decision. If it rejects the plan there will be a public inquiry, with the Government making a final decision. ''That would delay things by two years, cost over pounds 1m and keep a lot of lawyers in claret,'' said Lt-Col Carter.